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In Defense of Vinod Khosla

Vinod Khosla wrote an interesting essay on the validity of a liberal arts education recently that has fueled a deluge of negative comments from the online community. In his essay, Is Majoring in Liberal Arts A Mistake for Students?, he makes several curious assumptions:

1. Studying history and literature can prevent a person from self-agency: "If subjects like history and literature are focused on too early, it is easy for someone not to learn to think for themselves and not to question assumptions, conclusions, and expert philosophies. This can do a lot of damage."-Vinod Khosla

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2. Scientists have the ability to transition into different careers within the liberal arts, such as "becoming philosophers", whereas "philosophers" do not have an ability to transition into scientific careers. "A scientist can more easily become a philosopher or writer than a writer or philosopher can become a scientist."-Vinod Khosla

3. A Liberal Arts education limits people's ability to understand statistical models and prevents them from distinguishing between statistical understanding of anecdotal information from one rooted in critical analysis. Mr. Khosla then paradoxically goes on to write that in his experience, liberal arts majors from elite universities such as those at Stanford and Yale, excluding the top 20%, are lacking in critical thinking skills. In addition, "following one's passion" doesn't work to find suitable careers for the majority except for "the top 20% or bottom 20%" of students.

4. Contemporary liberal arts education can all be exemplified by one book: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which Mr. Khosla says is "impervious to all forms of critical thinking".

For those of you who aren't familiar with Gladwell's book, Outliers is a sociological study of manufacturing trends in United States from post-War America to the present era that attempts to explain the wealth of self-made millionaires, billionaires and star athletes. Gladwell groups together and selects particular individuals, and comes to the conclusion that age, the professions of the parental antecedents, and being born in the "right era" hold more significance than America's penchant for believing in self-agency and pursuit of the American Dream; in that each individual in his case study of the self-made millionaire/billionaire/ star athlete etc. was actually "born" into his or her profession out of circumstance, rather than as an individual who had paved his own path in life. Gladwell's book is a sociological treatise depicting Skinnerian psychology and Hume empiricism.

However, much controversy arose because certain people did not like Gladwell's conclusions against widespread American beliefs of the individual prevailing against society and criticised his statistical evaluations, (eg. "he cherry-picked certain people and results and did not evaluate all the people of a generation he was studying" etc). However, Gladwell's statistical analysis is actually not all that different in methodology from statistical evaluations of medical studies on pharmaceutical drugs for FDA approval or the ratings systems of politicians that many people and news agencies use as source material today.

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Scientists and doctors utilised electroconvulsive therapy (aka electro shock therapy) routinely on patients with typical and atypical psychological disorders in the 1930s despite the fact that the therapy often lead to patients becoming brain dead. 

To reiterate his point, Mr. Khosla then comes to the conclusion that studying the liberal arts is at best, a leisure activity that does not require one's critical thinking skills and that it is better to study engineering, because engineering is more closely aligned with the principles of critical thinking than for example, philosophy. He then illustrates his point by ironically, quoting a philosopher (Thomas Huxley) and an English literature professor (William Deresiewicz) to drive his point then makes a rather curious leap in logic by asserting that students today choose to study the liberal arts because it is easier than studying engineering or science.

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The Reader (1874): Renoir's portrait of Claude Monet reading a book. According to Vinod Khosla, studying literature should be a leisure activity.

I'm not sure if Mr. Khosla has ever studied Latin or Chinese, or even attempted to read the Illiad, but I think many people would agree that coding is probably a much easier task than attempting to deconstruct a tome with many divergent interpretations and historical references. However, I think here that the question of epistemology is one that Mr. Khosla is attempting to reconcile. What he seems to be arguing against is not liberal arts education per se, but specialisation within both the liberal arts and engineering/sciences. Instead, Mr. Khosla makes an argument for the liberal sciences, a holistic combination between a liberal arts education and science/ engineering. He also asserts that it is hard to teach people ethics and creativity, and those pursuits, should be outside of institutionalised education, something that Malcolm Gladwell also states in The Outliers.

“Ten years ago, no analyst in the world would have predicted 650m cellphone subscribers in India but only 300m people with access to latrines and toilets. Even five years ago, no one would have predicted the way that Twitter took off. These are the black swan outliers.”
- Vinod Khosla as quoted from his favourite publication, The Economist 

It is also true that many cultural icons often write books later in their lives. Former military generals write about their experiences in the military, politicians write about the dreams of their parents, and scientists can author biographies. Mr. Khosla's rather interesting but myopic observation that "scientists can become philosophers and writers but philosophers and writers cannot become scientists" is probably referring to cultural scientific icons, such as Einstein, who has written a biography, and in fact, many people from different professions have written biographies, but I think what Mr. Khosla is missing here is that most scientists nor philsophers nor writers often do not possess the will to transition to other careers. Aside from scant biographies written by ghost writers, I hardly think there are many scientists who decide later in their lives to become philosophers or vice versa- rather, philosophers such as Deleuze, Descartes and Wittgenstein would easily be dismissed by Mr. Khosla, however their work today, along with many other philosophers have been the inspiration of many scientific theories, and I daresay, decades ahead of scientific trends, serving as the impetus for scientific research by questioning the various traditional methodologies of their time.

If we were to simply categorise Mr. Khosla as an eccentric billionaire who has lost touch with the population at large, I think would do him a great injustice. Like many immigrants, his incredible work ethic and prescience in computer science in the early 1980s lead him to become founder of one of the most iconic companies in the United States. Mr. Khosla started his career at the age of 20 by selling soy milk in India before he moved to the United States to found Sun Microsystems. As part of that generation in which a technical education paved the way out of poverty, he has every right to believe that an engineering degree had more weight in his success and the founding of Sun Microsystems than a liberal arts degree, although despite the obvious bias, as he also states, is that today's society has since changed from those early Silicon Valley days, and American education, as it is currently today, is not equipped to tackle the challenges of a rapidly changing, technological society.

“I never compute returns. If you start forecasting cash flows, you lose innovation, you lose instinct. You average yourself down to mediocrity.”-Vinod Khosla in The Economist

The post-industrial educational system as it is in place today in the U.S. was intended to train students to work for large corporations, via specialisation in each sector. However, as we move into the Diamond Age, that kind of specialisation in both the liberal arts and in engineering and the sciences has presented a dead end in social mobility, as technology and scientific advances rapidly become obsolete. Mr. Khosla, despite the off-putting title of his essay, asks us to consider a broader, interdisciplinary education, what he terms as the liberal sciences, and move away from the current American model of education of specialisation. I daresay that what Mr. Khosla is really arguing for in his long-winded, meandering essay is more reflective of a British style of education, in which critical thinking, assessment of ethics and creativity are not only necessary, but a given in every subject.

Perhaps what Mr. Khosla really intended to say in his essay, in which he amusingly debased students at Yale and Stanford as lacking in critical thinking skills, is that what America really needs are better teachers.